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Is Dystopia Our Future?

Are you ready to volunteer as tribute for your district? 

Or are we destined to fight an army of T1000s?

Okay, these are pretty exaggerated scenarios. Enternaining to no end, but not literally our future (I'm hoping). What is it with science fiction and dystopian futures, anyway?

It can be easy to glance at some of the biggest titles in sci-fi movies and books and suspect that the outlook is rather bleak. And to some degree, this is a fair assessment. But science fiction wasn't always this way. In fact, there was a period in the early days of the genre when utopian literature was quite popular. As Professor Gary K. Wolfe details in his Great Courses series called How Great Science Fiction Works, utopian literature experience a dramatic fall in popularity following World War II. For the generation of readers who had just seen the power of what science could deliver, atomic bombs capable of leveling whole cities in the blink of an eye, suddenly the prospects of humanity achieving any kind of utopia felt highly unlikely, if not outright absurd.

It was a blow from which utopian literature never recovered. Dystopian literature and movies may rise and fall in popularity, but it seems highly unlikely that utopian fiction will be making any kind of comeback. Are we too cynical? Or are we realistically aware of humanity's propensity for self-destruction? Or... is the inherent conflict that's built into dystopia fiction just easier to sell?

Well, sure. That can definitely be a factor. I think it is worth acknowledging that stories are built around conflict. And the reason our brains latch on to conflict-driven stories is to pull out information that is helpful for our survival should we face similar conflicts (read more about that here). That means storytelling inherently is all about conflict and how to survive those conflicts, as I've written about before.

But is there more going on with dystopian fiction than maximizing conflict?

Contained within such stories are explorations of how we are already contending with dystopian themes in our daily lives. How are we already the complacent, affluent, entertainment obsessed hedonists of the Capitol in The Hunger Games universe? Dystopian storytelling is never born in a vacuum. From Animal Farm to The Matrix, these stories are born in the here and now. These stories, in particular, draw deeply from history, looking at real dystopias from our world, real tyrants, real ”big brother” states, and tell cautionary tales of what we may yet slip into if we are not vigilant.

But in more practical ways, many such stories also offer us ways to contemplate how we are already contributing to someone else’s dystopia today, as I've alluded to already. While we are not repossessing expensive but vital artificial organs surgically implanted in people who desperately need them to live but can no longer pay for them, like in the movie and novel, Repo Men, how is our world already engaged in this type of division of the haves and have-nots? How is our current society already deciding who gets to live or die?

Most of us might not be having sex with robots (...yet), but are we really contemplating the evolution of human-to-AI relationships that movies like Her, Ex Machina, or Blade Runner 2049 grapple with? What about the ways we are opting into a world with no privacy, as in The Circle?

Granted, these stories are not exactly full-blown dystopias, strictly speaking. However, in many ways, they are the precursors to potential dystopias. Or, at the very least, they are relational dystopias.

The real question for us is: what are we learning from these stories? Are we preparing for some kind of Brave New World or are we actively trying to make sure technology serves us, our societies offer us both community and freedom, and that we can someday relegate marginalization of people groups to the pages of history?

What are your thoughts? What do you find most relevant or compelling about dystopian fiction in movies or books?


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